North Dakota Fighting Sioux: Nickname May Face Statewide Vote

North Dakota may be the next state where voters will be asked to slap down their local legislature. The bone of contention is nothing less than the future of the University of North Dakota nickname, the Fighting Sioux.

Efforts are under way to seek a statewide referendum, as well as a state constitutional amendment, to overturn a brand-new law that itself overturned a somewhat less recent law requiring the university to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname. The Grand Forks Herald reported that a Minot, N.D., lawyer who supports the nickname is trying to overturn the latest decision by the state legislature and Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

Dalrymple signed a bill passed by the legislature last week to finalize efforts to repeal the nickname by shifting decision-making authority back to the state Board of Higher Education. The earlier law had stripped the board of its power over the nickname.

The whole kerfuffle was set off by NCAA regulations regarding the use of Native American names for college sports teams and potential fines that the university faced if it kept the nickname in place. The latest law was driven by the threat that North Dakota would not be admitted to the Big Sky Conference and not be allowed to participate in playoff games.

According to the Grand Forks Herald:

Reed Soderstrom, a Minot attorney representing nickname supporters in the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, said the group plans a ballot measure putting the question of UND retaining or dropping the name and logo to a statewide vote next year.

"It's the right thing to do, and I'm very confident we can get the signatures we need," he said Thursday. "We really need to show the NCAA a united front, and we need to give Standing Rock citizens of North Dakota the right to vote."

A constitutional amendment would need 27,000 signatures to get on the ballot. A referendum to repeal the law would require fewer signatures, but they would need to be collected within 90 days, according to the Herald.

The Spirit Lake tribe in North Dakota has also filed a federal lawsuit to block the changing of the nickname, which the tribe supports.

The nickname debate became a centerpiece of North Dakota politics this year, dominating the state's regular legislative session at the beginning of 2011. A special legislative session in November saw the nickname debate placed on the agenda next to such issues as housing, flood protection, health care and redistricting.

Nationwide, the use of referendums to overturn state laws, a century-old product of the Progressive movement, has been on the rise in the last year. Earlier this month, Ohio voters overturned the state's controversial redistricting law, and Maine voters rejected a new law eliminating the state's same-day voter registration. Ohio Democrats are currently collecting signatures for referendums to repeal the state's new voting law and its new congressional district map.

If the Fighting Sioux constitutional amendment qualifies for the 2012 ballot in North Dakota -- where it will join the expected governor's race between Dalrymple and state Senate Minority Leader Rick Taylor (D-Towner) as well as open-seat races for the U.S. House and Senate -- it will be just one of a number of high-profile referendum fights around the country. In addition to the Ohio issues, the 2012 ballot is likely to include other referendums on voting rights, along with potential votes on privatizing liquor sales in either Oregon or Idaho. The liquor measures would be similar to a law passed this month in Washington.